Rob Sherwood, with Sherwood Engineering, just updated his receiver test data table with the Ten-Tec Model 539 Argonaut:
The Argonaut VI certainly holds it own in comparison with contest grade radios.
Rob Sherwood, with Sherwood Engineering, just updated his receiver test data table with the Ten-Tec Model 539 Argonaut:
The Argonaut VI certainly holds it own in comparison with contest grade radios.
And now, what we’ve all been waiting for: the Ten-Tec Argonaut VI has finally hit the market. Manufacturer Ten-Tec has already begun shipping the new units–I hear they’ve already sold out the first production run. For the past two months, I have had the pleasure of beta-testing this newest QRP transceiver, and I’m ready to share my findings. [Do please note that, other than beta-testing, I have no relationship with Ten-Tec.]
I authored a post about the Model 539 when Ten-Tec first disclosed it at their 2011 Hamfest. The reactions and questions from readers came flooding in–so many, in fact, that I invited readers to send in those questions to share with the engineers at Ten-Tec. I presented these to the company, and posted Ten-Tec’s helpful responses.
In truth, I don’t think that Ten-Tec was quite prepared for all of the interest in their modest QRP transceiver. But it was no surprise to me: I’ve always been a fan of Ten-Tec, and although I’ve not been as excited by the QRP offerings since the early Argonauts, I knew I wasn’t alone in my appreciation of this US-based radio company’s quality products.
The following review is not a test-bench review–it is, rather, a consideration of the usability, ergonomics, design, basic performance and, well, fun factor of the new Argonaut VI. It’s only fair to note that I don’t review transceivers often; rather, I focus primarily on receiver reviews at my alternate radio blog. But I could not resist the opportunity to investigate the newest in this venerable line of transceivers.
You will note that I compare the Argonaut VI to the Elecraft K2 a number of times. Why? In my opinion, the K2 is the Argonaut VI’s closest competitor. It, too, is a front-panel QRP transceiver not for general coverage. While there are a number of differences, of course, I nonetheless feel the K2 is a closer match than the new Elecraft KX3, the Yaesu FT-817, or the Icom IC-703. Plus, I have a K2 that I already know and love here in my shack, so by default it has been my point of comparison throughout the beta-testing period.
Argonaut VI: first impressions
The Argonaut VI is an attractive, simple, sturdy little radio. It reminds me a great deal of the Ten-Tec Scout outfitted with its simple front panel. The front features two knobs: one controls the AF gain, while its outer ring controls RF gain; the other controls the bandwidth, while its outer ring controls the pass band. There is also an appropriately-sized display panel, quality tuning knob (see below), four multi-function buttons, and a three-position toggle switch.
A toggle switch? I can’t think of a recent front-panel radio in production that has had a proper mechanical toggle switch. On the Argo VI, this makes for a simple method to give the four function buttons a total of three one-push functions, each, for a total of twelve functions. Ten-Tec refers to this switch as the “TMB” (i.e., “Top-Middle-Bottom”) switch.
Size-wise, the Argonaut VI is smaller in every dimension than the K2 (see photos). Its physical dimensions are 2.25″H x 6.5″W x 7.6″D, less the knobs and connectors. It weighs a mere 3.6 lbs, and feels very light in my hands. The Argo VI has a sturdy Ten-Tec bail that snaps into the perfect position for tabletop operations. The display is crisp and clear, and actually contains a lot of information:
The display can be switched (via an internal setting) to blue (default), green, or red. One nice touch: the dot in the Ten-Tec logo is actually a red LED that lights up on transmit and ALC peaks.
Perhaps I place more emphasis on a tuning knob that other hams. I liken it to shutting the door on a quality car: you want the door to shut solidly and feel substantial. But it may be more like a car’s steering wheel–after all, the tuning knob is how one interacts with the radio. To me, the tuning knob is often a measure of a radio’s overall quality, in my humble opinion. As for the Argonaut VI? Here’s the answer: I was so impressed with the tuning knob on the Argonaut VI that I actually confirmed with Ten-Tec that the beta-unit’s tuning knob would also be used on production models. In short, the Argo VI’s tuning knob is heavy, perfectly-sized, has a light tactile grip, and is silky-smooth to operate. There is no play whatsoever in the action. I like the adaptive tuning, too–when you tune slowly, you’re changing the frequency by hundredths of a kHz; spin the knob quickly and you’ve just shot across the band. After tuning the Argo VI for a bit, other small radios’ tuning knobs begin to feel cheap.
When I first played with the Argo VI at the Ten-Tec hamfest, I was impressed with the simplicity of the front panel. This is an important factor because I simply won’t use a radio that isn’t pleasant to use/control, and I find that too many front buttons and general visual fussiness can be a distraction. To illustrate my point, when the Yaesu FT-817 hit the market over a decade ago, I was among the first to purchase one. I liked the idea of a small transceiver that I could tuck in my carry-on and take with me as I traveled. But I ended up selling the FT-817, however, because I hated the ergonomics and multi-function buttons. Button spacing was too tight for my larger hands, important multi-functions seemed to overlap, and menus were buried too deep for convenient operation. The FT-817 had a profound impact on all other buying decisions I’ve made since, and taught me that too much can simply be…too much.
Happily, on the Argo VI the most often used transceiver functions have dedicated buttons/knobs, and the display includes everything I need. Clean, clear, straightforward–this rig provides a pleasant operating experience.
For basic operations like rag-chewing, scanning the band, switching modes, switching bands, adjusting RF/AF/BW and PBT, you’ll be pleased, too. None of these operations require calling multi-functions or toggling the TMB switch (assuming you’re already in the “M” position).
But after spending some time on the air, I realized that there is a bit of a learning curve you’ll have to overcome before front-panel operations become entirely fluid and intuitive. To change RIT, you need to toggle the TMB switch to “B”, then press the RIT (BAN) button to toggle RIT on and off. If you hear DX working split, you’ll need to move the TMB switch to the “T” position, then set the A/B and SPL buttons; if you need to change modes or turn on the pre-amp, then you’ll have to move TMB back to “M.”
In the first few hours of testing the Argo VI, I found it easy to forget that I had the TMB switch set to a certain position when pressing a multi-function button, thus I was sometimes not receiving the response I expected. Several times I intended to change the band, but had the TMB set to “T” and resultingly opened the output power setting, or pressed the MOD button only to find that TMB was set to “T” as I toggled A/B VFOs.
While this was distracting at first, I soon became accustomed to changing the setting, then moving the TMB back to the “M” setting afterward. Now I find I very rarely make a mistake.
On the Argo VI, all of the buttons and knobs are adequately spaced. You could operate this rig outside with lightweight insulated gloves on, should the need arise.
All in all, the ergonomics are excellent on the Argonaut VI.
Before I begin talking about this little transceiver’s performance, I want to point out its two most obvious shortcomings:
If those two negatives are deal-breakers for you, I could certainly understand. You might want to consider a basic KX3 with ATU ($1070 unassembled, $1170 assembled) or a K2/10 with ATU ($1280 unassembled), instead.
But if, like me, you use neither 12 nor 60 meters very often, you may not miss them. Admittedly, the lack of 12 meters is unfortunate because it’s such an ideal band–when conditions are right–for easy QRP field operation. However, I am very pleased the Argo VI has 160 meters.
An internal ATU–or the option to have one installed later–is certainly a negative for those of us who like a simple Field Day radio set-up. From my point of view, other than my Elecraft KX1, I’ve never had a radio with an internal ATU; I have two portable tuners (the LDG Z11 Pro and Elecraft T1) that work wonders. The way my shack is designed, I have a remote auto-tuner outside at the feed point of my antennas and thus have no tuner in my shack–so if I had an internal ATU, I’d have to turn it off 95% of the time. If your shack is set up similarly, you might not mind not having an ATU.
If you’re concerned about the performance of the Argonaut VI, let me assure you now: you will not be disappointed. Indeed, the receiver in the Argonaut VI must be one of the best I’ve ever heard in any radio—especially in this price class ($1000). It is truly remarkable. I’m eager to learn how Rob Sherwood rates the Argonaut VI, but I suspect it will rank among the top few.
What is most impressive in the Argo VI is its incredibly effective variable DSP filtering. I experimented with the variable bandwidth and pass band during crowded CW conditions, and found that each and every time I could zero in on one QSO and block everything else. It’s also highly effective when used with SSB. Based on the reviews I’ve read of the Eagle, this is obviously derived from its DSP architecture and has similar performance characteristics. [Future Argo VI owners, I eagerly welcome A/B comparisons of the Eagle and Argo VI–please comment!]
You’ll be happy with both the Argo’s sensitivity and its ability to reject adjacent signals. Compared with my Elecraft K2/10, the Argo VI’s sensitivity had an edge in every band I tested, and to my ear, the noise floor is lower on the Argo VI as well. Most noticeably, however, is the Argonaut’s audio fidelity, which is far superior to that of the K2. Whether using headphones or using the built-in top mounted speaker, you will be pleased. The speaker delivers an impressive sound for its size. I tend to hook up external speakers to my smaller transceivers, but in this case I never felt I needed to. With headphones, the audio is even more impressive. I do wish the headphone jack was on the front panel instead of the back, though.
Though I haven’t spent enough time with the KX3 to compare audio fidelity, I imagine the KX3 and Argonaut VI would be a fair contest.
I can say that audio fidelity is the primary reason I continue to turn to Ten-Tec for transceivers and receivers. In my opinion, like Kenwood, Ten-Tec invests more resources into insuring superb audio fidelity–even at the cost (in this case) of uber-low current drain numbers (although the 550 mA drain on receive must be the lowest Ten-Tec has ever produced in a digital transceiver). The Argo VI’s audio is rich, inviting enjoyable listening for hours on end. It would certainly be a great pick for long-haul events like Field Day or 24/48-hour contests.
But how does she sound on the other end? Immediately after unpacking the Argonaut VI, I caught band openings on 10, 15, 17 and 20 meters. Though I was only running 7 watts at the time (production units run a full 10W) I received great audio reports on SSB and was even heard through a pile-up on 17M. Though I believe the default settings would have worked well, setting up the mic gain on this rig is also very easy and straightforward.
As for CW, reports have also been very positive. CW ops will be happy to note that the Argonaut VI has Ten-Tec’s silky-smooth QSK. Frankly, I expected nothing less.
Since I don’t operate digital modes often, I did not test the Argo VI in this capacity. I imagine reviews will emerge soon, but I expect them to be positive as several beta testers were impressed.
When I begin a radio review, I keep a checklist of pros and cons as I discover them to remind myself of my initial discoveries. Here’s my list from the Argonaut VI:
To buy, or not to buy…
I really think the Argonaut VI is a streamlined Ten-Tec Eagle, and a very good rig. Its DSP architecture is based on the Eagle’s (in beta, we even used the Eagle software for the frequent firmware updates).
When I ask myself, “Who will buy the Argonaut VI?” I believe the answer is anyone who wants a QRP radio with the performance and interface we’ve come to expect from Ten-Tec. If you can live without 12 and 60 meters, then you will be buying a rig that does not compromise on performance. The Argonaut VI is not a QRP radio designed for backpacking like the KX1 or KX3, but it would hang with the best in a QRP contest or on Field Day; operators would experience little to no listening fatigue with this smooth rig.
The Argo VI comes factory-assembled, warrantied, and ready to go, right out of the box. There’s nothing to put together nor configure.
On a side note, I should mention that this is the first time I’ve beta-tested with Ten-Tec; this provided insight into the process of rolling out a new product and just how responsive and open the company is to both frank criticism and design requests. I believe all of the beta-testers would agree. Every concern I reported to Ten-Tec was eventually addressed by version 1.0 of the firmware. That’s responsiveness I can really appreciate. Ten-Tec’s Software Engineer, John Henry, is nothing short of amazing. I’m not sure when he finds the time to sleep.
I’m happy to have had this little radio in my shack for the past two months. I’ll have to bid it farewell, though: Ten-Tec has already sold out of their first production run, so my unit will be returned, upgraded with a new board, tested, inspected, and sold as a demo. Alas, it’s hard to say good-bye.
I guess the proof is in the Christmas pudding: I have to admit that I now prefer the Argonaut VI even over my trusty Elecraft K2. So, kind readers, if one of you is in the market for a K2/10 with SSB, and 160M, I may be in the market for an Argonaut VI.
It would bring tidings of great joy, indeed. Happy holidays!
This weekend, I’m heading to the Ten-Tec Hamfest at the Ten-Tec factory in Sevierville, Tennessee. This is, hands down, my favorite hamfest of the year. Not only is it completely free, but the ham radio flea market section has a higher percentage of real radio gear than any other hamfest with which I’m familiar. The event is being held today and tomorrow (the flea market is Saturday only). You can read details about the hamfest on Ten-Tec’s website.
Agonaut VI update…
I just got the following word directly from Ten-Tec Engineer, John Henry, regarding the Model 539 (Argonaut VI) transceiver; in a nutshell, they will not be taking orders at the hamfest as they had hoped, price is not fixed but ballparked, and rigs will be available at the hamfest for testing:
TenTec is not going to take early orders for the 539 at the TenTec Hamfest on 9-28/29-2012. Essentially the rig is performing to our specification level, but we have a few things to finish before we can ship them to customers, [such as] the user’s manual, FCC testing, etc.
We do have a pilot run of 25 units that will be visible to those taking the tour, and a couple will be set up for hams to use at the Hamfest this weekend. In about 1-2 weeks from now, some of the pilot run units will be distributed to hams for another round of beta testing.
Regarding the price of the 539, until we finish this last round of beta testing we aren’t sure if we have each and every cost factor taken into consideration. Never know what a broader field of testers will find that may increase costs. So, there is no final customer price yet. But as we have stated at all of the hamfests so far, we can still say it will be well below $1000, and we will still meet our goal of having the price of the 539 [plus] the price of the 418 to be less than the cost of the 599, at near the specification level.
I plan to post photos from the Ten-Tec hamfest and report any other updates. Stay tuned!
I just received word from John Henry at Ten-Tec that their time frame for production runs of the Model 539 (Argonaut VI) is on-track with estimates provided at the 2012 Dayton Hamvention.
We are running a small production run right now, working out the kinks of getting it into production. Most places call these “Pilot runs”. Pilot Runs basically get the factory up to speed with the units before we go to full scale production quantities.
He doesn’t see any reason, at this point, why they wouldn’t hit the late fall 2012 ship dates. He also said that they’re working hard to possibly take orders for the Argonaut VI at the 2012 Ten-Tec Hamfest being held at their factory in Sevierville, Tennessee, September 28-29th.
I will attend the 2012 Ten-Tec Hamfest and plan to post updates on QRPer.com from there.
John Henry, Software Engineer for Ten-Tec, wrote the following message in response to Argonaut VI comments and questions on the Model 539 group:
To help answer a few questions.
The electronics ARE based on the 599, [Ten-Tec Eagle] not exactly the same, but VERY similar.
Filters…. The 539 will have three filter slots for hardware receive filters. They will not be the same ones used in the 599, height limitation, but they will be designed in house and will match the characteristics / performance traits of the 599 closely. One will be filled with the default SSB filter, and the two others are for either CW or for AM if you so desire. Or two CW filters, up to you as a ham to see what you need and to fill them, or not. The filter slot module is based on the TX/RX board from the 599, it is not an option as some competitors are selling now. One less option to have to buy over the stock price. Then, of course, the same DSP bandwidth options controllable from 100Hz to the size of the largest hardware filter installed.
The CPU is the same CPU we use in the 599, so we are using almost the same code set as the 599, meaning we aren’t re-inventing the wheel, just massaging it to handle the different buttons/encoders/pot/voltage levels/10w vs 100w/etc. This also means that the command protocol interface is already done, same as the Eagle, well, almost. We have added a few things to the 539 so that you can define certain buttons to do what you want them to do. On the four buttons, their function is selected by the “tumbler” as I call it. the “tumbler” is a three position switch on front of the 539, that by it’s position identifies what the four buttons do. It is currently denoted with “T” for top, “M” for mid, and “B” for bottom. This may change, as we get closer to production though. So, don’t bank on it being TMB.
The DSP board is the same as we use in the 599, with “slightly” modified software due to the differences in gains and other “realities of hardware” differences.
Since it is the same CPU and the same DSP board/code base, you will have almost all of the features / functions that the Eagle already has. And, since it is based on the Eagle, the maturity is already proven. And, as a benefit, as items are resolved in either the 599 or 539, it is a quick fix for the other rig. Reuse, something we are trying to stress highly on this and future rigs. Why re-invent wheels when they run so smoothly. Of course, improve them over time as technologies get better, as we have time, as we find new parts/better parts, etc.
Why no 60 and 12?
That’s basically it. We had a certain size in mind, and yes, we could have fit 160 through 6, however, you would have had receiver performance of a much inferior rig. One that we felt would not live up to TenTec standards. When queried, about 160, 60, and 12, MANY inputs went into the current state of the 539. 160 was added because of the amount of customer inputs, and unfortunately, 60 and 12 cannot be added due to size restrictions. Adding 60 and 12 would have meant redesigning the pre-selector with smaller parts that would have made the rig equal to most other QRP rigs in receiver performance.
If that was the wrong decision, then the market will definitely tell us via sales, but from the comments on “when it is ready, I’m ordering a 539 and a 418” “I never use 60 in QRP” “etc.” at Dayton and via hundreds of emails and conversations, etc., we feel we do have a winner on our hand with the feature set it will be built with. The market will tell of course.
There are a lot of rigs out there to choose from, and we do hope you give the 539 a chance to see if it meets your needs.
As Ten-Tec was setting up at the Dayton Hamvention last Thursday, I was able to meet with their engineer (John Henry) briefly and had a little time to play with the new Model 539 Argonaut VI. As I tuned around the CW side of the 20 meter band, I recorded a short video. I’m sharing this with you here, but must ask your forgiveness for its quality and glitches; I want to make it clear that this material was recorded on my Android phone in some haste.
Moreover, this video does not do justice to the Argo VI’s audio, which is exceptional. In fact, I can’t tell a difference between its audio and that of the Ten-Tec Eagle, both of which have very low noise floors and simply gorgeous audio fidelity.
Now, just a small taste of what this receiver can do…
Though I’ll keep my comments short–I have a l o n g day at the Hamvention ahead of me–I thought I’d share a few first impressions.
The guys at Ten-Tec were kind enough to allow me to take a few shots of the Argonaut VI and the Model 418 Amp, both in Hara Arena and at Four Days In May yesterday.
If you’re coming to the Hamvention, you will want to stop by the Ten-Tec booth. Through some sort of feat of engineering (or–as I first thought–dark magic!) they have a recorded chunk of 20M spectrum taken from a recent contest. They’re feeding most of their rigs with this spectrum IQ and you, in turn, hear exactly what each radio will sound like. Not only that, but you can operate the radio as if “live”–tuning, adjusting filters, bandwidth, notch etc. Indeed, you can use any receiver feature on the rig.
Additionally, they have one of the Argonaut VI’s hooked up to a Model 418 Amplifier. With these two linked, you can operate CW into a dummy load. Through this set-up I got a very good idea of how the Argonaut VI sounds and how well the amplifier works in conjunction.
First impressions are very positive. A few notes about the Model 539 Argonaut VI:
Not many criticisms yet, but mind you, these are first impressions.
Though the Model 418 was hooked into a dummy load, I was able to get a feel for how well the amp responded while sending CW. I’m happy to say that the QSK is silky smooth. Ten-Tec has never disappointed me on this point–their QSK is a benchmark.
Tomorrow, I will post the price of the Model 418 Amplifier–as I mentioned before, the Argonaut VI pricing is at least a few months off, most likely.
Many of you asked about the omission of 12 and 60 Meters. I asked Ten-Tec about this and, in short, it was a balance of performance vs. features. Through their research, they found that 12 and 60 would be the least missed, while 160M would be a great addition (initially, they did not plan to add 160M).
In an effort to save time, I’m simply posting a load of photos below in a thumbnail gallery. Simply click on the thumbnail to enlarge each photo. Feel free to comment and ask questions if you can’t make it to the Hamvention. I will do my best to answer.
I well remember first speaking with a Ten-Tec rep at the Ten-Tec Hamfest last year when the company first displayed the concept Model 539 transceiver, which was beginning to generate enormous interest. After viewing it, I casually asked the representative what the name of the new radio would be–? When he shrugged his response, I came to the point: “Will it be called an Argonaut?” “Time will tell,” he eluded. But in retrospect, I realized his response was not so much evasive, as it was fair–an honest attempt to protect the original Argonaut line’s name. Ten-Tec apparently wanted to finish the rig, to vet it thoroughly, and deliver performance that would live up to the legendary Argonaut status.
Now, it appears they’ve done it. And the name? Yes, folks–Ten-Tec has officially christened the new rig the Argonaut VI.
Introducing the Ten-Tec Argonaut VI
Ten-Tec, having been made aware of our avid interest in their new product, has been kind enough to provide QRPer with a preliminary spec sheet for the Model 539, and they’re permitting me to post it here, for the first time, today (see link below). As you can see at the top of the page, it very clearly states that the ‘539 will be called the Argonaut VI.
Ten-Tec also allowed us access to the spec sheet for the new Model 418 Amplifier, which (to keep this post brief) will be featured in this separate post.
Ten-Tec tells us that the receiver on the Argonaut VI will perform much like the one in their Ten-Tec Eagle (Model 599). But you can hear it for yourself at the Hamvention: There, they’ll have a recorded contest playing over all of their rigs–including over the new Argonaut VI–so that hams can listen to and compare their receiver performance.
You can download the Argonaut flier that Ten-Tec will hand out at the Dayton Hamvention by clicking here. It covers these vital specs of the radio:
Availability and Price–?
The Model 539 Argonaut will be available late fall of 2012. Though the software is in final stages and almost ready for Beta testing, Ten-Tec says they are still ironing out the parts list and firming up lead times and prices. They will not, alas, have a price for the Model 539 Argonaut VI at the Hamvention, but say that they will have firm pricing on the Model 418 Amp by then (more on that here, and to come).
Some questions answered…
The Model 539 will only draw 550 mah on receive unsquelched. That’s not as low as an Elecraft rig, but for a Ten-Tec rig (that consumes a little extra juice for audio fidelity) that’s a fairly miniscule number. Especially considering that its predecessor, the Argo V, consumed nearly double that figure on receive. In fact, I’ll bet it’s the lowest receive current on any digital/DSP transceiver they’ve ever produced. Indeed, this Argo VI is almost as good as the venerable Yaesu FT-817 unsquelched. As a result, I imagine this new-generation Argonaut will be a great radio to take to the air on Field Day, or even to take backpacking/HF-packing.
If the price is competitive, and that’s still an if, this could be a real winner for Ten-Tec, offering high-performance on a QRP budget. If so, this may be an affordable way to get into a top-quality new radio whose performance is benchmark-able. Couple it with the Model 418 Amplifier to provide 100 watts output as needed…Quite promising!
The Argonaut VI (and Model 418) will be on display at Dayton, and will be fully-functioning. I’ll be one of the first visitors at their booth in Dayton Friday morning, and plan to post further details (and possibly a few photos) during the Hamvention. So, check back and follow the tags: Ten-Tec and Dayton.
So, what could the Argonaut name mean for this rig, in terms of performance? Time will tell!
Just to be clear, all of this information came from straight from the horse’s mouth at Ten-Tec and is accurate-to-date.
We’re grateful to the folks at Ten-Tec for giving QRPer a preliminary look into these two products prior to the Hamvention, and allowing us to post their sheets so our readers can take a first peek. Thanks, fellas!